Readings in Chapter XIV
The Possibility of a First Step towards International Unity - Its Enormous Difficulties
Towards the end of 1916, Sri Aurobindo wrote down his initial thoughts on how a hypothetical construct of an international organ could be worked out for international unity. Though the time was not yet ripe for the execution of such an endeavor, nevertheless, World War I precipitated two distinct possibilities:
(a) A movement towards "replacing of the individualistic basis of society by an increasing collectivism" that would act as "a precipitative force" for "the possibility a realized -not necessarily a democratic-State socialism" (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 385); and
(b) A vague sense of international unity not only external in nature but also reflective of psychological oneness (Ibid).
It is interesting that a loose, superficial and nascent beginning of both these movements got initiated in the political consciousness of the Western world. After the Russian revolution of 1917, four socialist republics were established over the territory of the erstwhile Russian Empire before the USSR was formally set up in 1922 to which other republics were added subsequently upholding State Socialism in its full puissance. The movement towards international unity led to the formulation of the League of Nations by the Allied Powers at Paris in 1919 which was eventually replaced by the United Nations in 1945 at the end of World War II.
While expressing his ideas about international unity, Sri Aurobindo wrote that at that nascent stage of affairs just after the World War I, a durable organ of international stature could not be built on the basis of "short sighted common sense" (Ibid) of the mass mind and the force of the idea needed to outgrow "the generous chimera of a few pacifists or international idealists". (Ibid) Such an attempt would be ideally based on the foundation of "a general idealistic outburst of creative human hope".(Ibid, pg 386) The average mass mentality is ruled not so much by thought as by action and is actually conditioned by "interests, passions and prejudices" (Ibid) and the average politician would be merry in just dancing to its tunes. It actually needs statesmen, visionary human beings who with a combination of intellect and will-power to motivate the masses could march towards the Utopian goal of international unity. The average political mind cannot stand up to the highest ideal, it cannot disturb the status quo, it cannot take the risk of new adventures. (Ibid)
What could happen if instead of visionary statesmen, average politicians embarked on the endeavor towards international unity? Sri Aurobindo answered that nothing more could be expected than "a rearrangement of frontiers, a redistribution of power and possessions and a few desirable or undesirable developments of international, commercial and other relations. That is one disastrous possibility leading to more disastrous convulsions-so long as the problem is not solved-against which the future of the world is by no means secure". (Ibid) His forewarning was proved true as the League of Nations could neither be consolidated or maintained and nor could the World War II be prevented. The World War I had signaled the moral collapse of the old world order where international balance reposed on a "ring of national egoisms held in check only by mutual fear and hesitation, by ineffective arbitration treaties and Hague tribunals and the blundering discords of a European Concert".(Ibid, pg 387) In fact, there were two obstacles to the principle of international control at the end of World War I. Firstly, the war had raised "passions and hatreds and selfish national hopes". (Ibid) Secondly, the mind-set of the mass was not yet ready, the intellect of the ruling classes had not acquired the optimal wisdom and foresight and the temperament of the peoples had not developed the appropriate instincts and sentiments. (Ibid, pg. 389) Yet Sri Aurobindo was optimistic that "if nothing else, the mere exhaustion and internal reaction produced after the relaxing of the tensity of the struggle, might give time for new ideas, feelings, forces, events to emerge". (Ibid, pg 387) Unfortunately, he also observed that "as the great conflict drew nearer to its close, no such probability emerged; the dynamic period during which in such a crisis the effective ideas and tendencies of men are formed, passed without the creation of any great and profound impulse".(Ibid, pg 387-388)
Despite the lack of vision of politicians, the War left a deep effect on the general mind-set of the masses on two important issues:
(a) "there was generated a sense of revolt against the possible repetition of the vast catastrophe" (Ibid, pg 388);
(b) There was felt "the necessity for finding means to prevent the unparalleled dislocation of the economic life of the race which was brought about by the convulsion". (Ibid)
Sri Aurobindo surmised in that context, "Therefore, it is in these two directions that some real development could be expected; for so much must be attempted if the general expectation and desire are to be satisfied and to trifle with these would be declare the political intelligence of Europe bankrupt. That failure would convict its governments and ruling classes of moral and intellectual impotence and might well in the end provoke a general revolt of the European peoples against their existing institutions and the present blind and rudderless leadership".(Ibid) These realistic apprehensions finally culminated in the formulation of the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
The concept of international unity that began to crystallize in the aftermath of World War I was motivated by the need for regulating and minimizing the occurrence of war. Sri Aurobindo described that such an endeavour would have to initially proceed through three directions:
(a) Limitation of armaments,
(b) Satisfactory disposal of dangerous inter-State disputes,
(c) Resolution of commercial conflicts between States as such conflict was becoming one of the key issues compelling the recurrence of war (Ibid, pg 388).
Towards the end of World War I , the Western world was marked by a nebulous state of affairs where nobody was wanting a repetition of war yet every nation distrusted others and needed the arsenal of arms and armed forces "if for nothing else , to guard its markets and keep down its dominions, colonies, subject peoples". (Ibid, pg 389) At that point in history, the mass consciousness was not yet sensitized to the ideal of internationalism, the politicians lacked vision and there was no expertise to plan, deal and execute any policy of international control. Sri Aurobindo boldly stated that as long as national egoism remained, one or other excuse could always be found for initiating strife. (Ibid, pg 390)
Deeper causes of World War I
Writing in 1916, Sri Aurobindo with remarkable insight traced the genesis of World War I. In that sweeping overview, he also envisioned the causes for strife in the immediate future. It is interesting reading as he completed his treatise 'The Ideal of Human Unity" in July 1918, quite before the 11th November Armistice in the same year heralded the official cessation of World War I. He was simultaneously penning down his philosophical, metaphysical, mystical and yogic treatises during the same period.
Outwardly it seems that the death of ten millions and mutilation of another twenty millions in the World War I was too terrible a price to pay for the chain of events that were triggered off with the assassinations of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Hapsburg throne and his wife by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo on 28th of June, 1914 but Sri Aurobindo explained that the precipitating factors must not be equated with the real causes which lay deeper:
"The present war came because all the leading nations had long been so acting as to make it inevitable; it came because there was a Balkan imbroglio and a Near-Eastern hope and commercial and colonial rivalries in Northern Africa over which the dominant nations had been battling in peace long before one or more of them grasped at the rifle and the shell. Sarajevo and Belgium were mere determining circumstances; to get to the root causes we have to go back as far at least as Agadir and Algeciras. From Morocco to Tripoli, from Tripoli to Thrace and Macedonia, from Macedonia to Herzegovina the electric chain ran with that inevitable logic of cause and results, actions and their fruits which we call Karma, creating minor detonations on its way till it found the inflammable point and created that vast explosion which has filled Europe with blood and ruins. Possibly the Balkan question may be definitively settled, though that is far from certain; possibly the definitive expulsion of Germany from Africa may ease the situation by leaving that continent in the possession of three or four nations who are for the present allies. But even if Germany were expunged from the map and its resentments and ambitions deleted as a European factor, the root causes of strife would remain. There will still be an Asiatic question of the Near and the Far East which may take on new conditions and appearances and regroup its constituent elements, but must remain so fraught with danger that if it is stupidly settled or does not settle itself, it would be fairly safe to predict the next great human collision with Asia as either its first field or its origin. Even if that difficulty is settled, new causes of strife must necessarily develop where the spirit of national egoism and cupidity seeks for satisfaction; and so long as it lives, satisfaction it must seek and repletion can never permanently satisfy it. The tree must bear its own proper fruit, and Nature is always a diligent gardener".(Ibid, pg 390-391)
Thus, more than two decades earlier than World War II, Sri Aurobindo had previsioned that the root causes of global strife would include in its ambit the "Near and the Far East", something that actually happened when Japan expanded its war with China, seized European colonial holdings and occupied most of South East Asia, Burma, the Netherland East Indies and many Pacific islands. His anticipation (in 1916) that Asia would be one of the key fields for "the next great human collision" reached a dreadful culmination with the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
He also cautioned that any international control in the background of World War I though necessary to be initiated would still "proceed on the old basis of national egoisms, hungers, cupidities, self-assertions" and would "simply endeavour to regulate them just enough to prevent too disastrous collisions. The first means tried will necessarily be insufficient because too much respect will be paid to those very egoisms which it is sought to control. The causes of strife will remain; the temper that engenders it will live on, perhaps exhausted and subdued for a time in certain of its activities, but unexorcised; the means of strife may be controlled but will be allowed to remain. Armaments may be restricted, but will not be abolished; national armies may be limited in numbers - an illusory limitation-but they will be maintained; science will still continue to minister ingeniously to the art of collective massacre. (Ibid, pg 389). This was actually the specter of events that unrolled in the global scenario in the aftermath of World War I.
It is interesting to read what he wrote in 1916."War can only be abolished if national armies are abolished and even then with difficulty, by the development of some other machinery which humanity does not yet know how to form or, even if formed, will not for some time be able or willing perfectly to utilize". Thus the League of Nations, the first machinery for international co-operation that was formulated in 1919 at the end of World War I could never consolidate itself.
A First Step towards International Unity
In the backdrop of World War I, it was difficult to postulate whether a limitation of arms and armaments could lead to an effective international control as such an alignment would collapse if a clash of war actually happened. The World War demonstrated that the exigencies of ground reality could turn a country into a huge arsenal and a nation of peaceful people could be converted into an army. The striking example was England who could raise millions of soldiers within a very short time. "This object-lesson is sufficient to show that the limitation of armies and armaments can only lighten the national burden in peace, leaving it by that very fact more resources for the conflict, but cannot prevent or even minimize the disastrous intensity and extension of war"(Ibid, pg 390).
The next remedy for International Unity was sought in the construction of a strong international law equipped with an effective sanction for its implementation. Randal Lesaffer (in The Oxford Handbook of The History Of International Law, edited by Fassebender, B & Peters Anne, Oxford University Press, Uk,2012, pg 71-78) in an excellent overview traces the genesis of international law to the peace treaties which were of particular importance between 1500 and 1920. During this period war also began changing its character. The medieval war between princes was generally perceived as an instrument of justice, a forcible self-help of wronged party against the perpetrator. The modern war (especially after canon law and the jurisdiction of the pope and Church were mostly marginalized following the Reformation in Europe) became a conflict between territorial States, aimed at a monopolization of war itself and thus became legal and formal. Such a legal war needed a formal declaration of war that spelled out measures like arrest or eviction of enemy subjects, confiscation of their property, prohibition of trade with enemy, eviction of diplomats etc. Consequently, peace treaties were also declarations to end state of war and restore peace and included measures like amnesty clause, withdrawal of troops, stipulations on free movement and trade, rights of people living in ceded territories, etc. Peace treaties thus laid the matrix from which international law evolved as a concept.
However in that nascent state of affairs towards the end of World War I, Sri Aurobindo had reservations about the efficacy of an international law in enforcing peace. He explained, "The metaphorical sword of justice can only act because there is a real sword behind it to enforce its decrees and its penalties against the rebel and the dissident" (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 391-392). There must be an armed force to effectuate the law and such a force should have two essential characteristics:
(a) Such an armed force should belong exclusively to the State and not to any individual or constituent group of the community, and
(b) The armed forces must be sole and centralized and not balanced or have its sole effectivity diminished by parallel armed forces belonging to groups or individuals and free from central control. (Ibid, pg 392)
However, even with such safeguards, law has its inherent limitations:
(a) "Law has not been able to prevent strife of a kind between individuals and classes because it has not been able to remove the psychological, economic and other causes of strife".(Ibid)
(b) "Crime with its penalties is always a kind of mutual violence, a kind of revolt and civil strife and even in the best-policed and most law-abiding communities crime is still rampant".(Ibid) Moreover, the fact that organized crime cannot endure or fix its power is not because of Law but "because it has the whole vehement sentiment and effective organization of the community against it". (Ibid)
(c) "Law has not been able to prevent, although it has minimized, the possibility of civil strife and violent or armed discord within the organized nation". (Ibid)
(d) Any loose international formation desiring to impose international law would not have the loyalty of the armed forces of its constituents in times of actual crisis precipitating further chaos. (Ibid, pg 392-393)
(e) "A composite armed force of control set over the nations and their separate military strength"(Ibid, pg 393) to enforce international law would similarly collapse in the event of strife to the advantage of powerful States in comparison to the comparatively weaker nations contributing to the composite army. Within a nation, a revolt by an individual, even that of a single soldier can be easily curbed. The situation is different when the constituent States and nations of a federation face a revolt because the advantage is always with the stronger constituents.
Sri Aurobindo felt that "pending the actual evolution an international State so constituted as to be something other than a mere loose conglomerate of nations or rather a palaver of the deputies of national governments, the reign of peace and unity dreamed of by the idealist could never be possible by these political or administrative means or, if possible, could never be secure".(Ibid, Pg 394)
Sri Aurobindo also gave a new warning that strife between States could take place in a more dangerous manner than war. "Even if war were eliminated, still as in the nation crime between individuals exists, or as other means such as disastrous general strikes are used in the war of classes, so here to other means of strife would be developed, much more disastrous perhaps than war." (The Russian strike of Ukraine in 2022 bears testimony to this observation made a century back!) The world is now witnessing how global strife can be now fought with corporate and multinationals, economic embargoes and trade policies, vetoes and sanctions, political maneuverings and string-pulling in a more devastating way than frontal war. "The law is always the same, that wherever egoism is the root of action it must bear its own proper results and reactions and, however minimized and kept down they may be by an external machinery, their eventual outburst is sure and can be delayed but not prevented for ever".(Ibid)
Sri Aurobindo concludes that any loose formation of nations without any central control could neither effectively enforce an international law nor usher global unity. "There must be in the nature of things a second step, a movement towards greater rigidity, constriction of national liberties and the erection of a unique central authority with a uniform control over the earth's peoples". (Ibid) This vision was actualized as an attempt much later when the time-spirit necessitated the formation of the United Nations Security Council with the primary purpose of maintaining international peace and security through imposing diplomatic or economic sanctions or authorizing the use of military force to prevent or halt aggressive strife between nations.
Date of Update: 21-Jul-22
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu